States under pressure
Basil Davidson
Basil Davidson argues that the Kabila regime in the Congo is very good news for the African continent.

From Soundings issue 7 Autumn 1997

If I insist that recent events in the former Belgian Congo confirm the approaching end of an epoch in the history of the African continent - an end to the epoch of territorial imperialism - I shall expect to be accused of sentimental optimism. And besides, who thinks that territorial imperialism matters a damn? Nowadays we know all too well that economic imperialism is what rules; and no-one in their right mind supposes that economic imperialism is near its end. All the same I still think that this ending of territorial imperialism is a fact - if, needless to say, it really is a fact - of great and pregnant meaning. Let me, briefly, argue the case.
To begin with, then: yes, it is a fact. These one-time student innovators came out of the forests of the Kivu region, a few months ago, and proceeded to chase the incumbent neo-colonialists, the one-time Belgian imperialist spy Mobutu and all his gang, to defeat and disappearance; and there is no present sign that the defeat will be reversed. But this man Kabila: won't he just degrade like all the others? Or, if he doesn't degrade, won't he be eliminated (like Pio Pinto, for instance; like Amilcar Cabral; like so many others who stuck to their innovating plans until the assassins came for them) ? Well, we shall see. No ground for sentimental optimism here. But the fact, so far, is that nobody has tried, or rather, those who have briefly tried (such as Savimbi's men of the so-called UNITA 'movement' from neighbouring Angola) have failed. By all the signs, Kabila and his friends are in for a good run. The further fact, very large in its implications, is that Kabila and his friends are responding to a political scenario that now becomes notably different from before, and by no means in the Congo alone. Consider only that this vast sprawl of a country has not been a political state, a state-unit in any recognisable sense, for very many years. On the contrary, apart from a few islands of mineral and export-crop production, the Congo has long since 'gone back to bush': meaning, in the old colonial phrase, has reverted to the everyday self-rule of and for local populations. Little is known about this decades-long 'interregnum', for the local populations have evidently felt no need to write about themselves. But when we discover more we shall surely see that these local populations have nonetheless been able to provide for themselves. And this will be seen to have happened because these populations have recalled the customs and disciplines of their pre-colonial and therefore pre-Mobutist history of self-government. The Congo demonstrates that these Africans have not forgotten how to govern themselves; and this will be the sense in which 'the end of territorial imperialism' has a real meaning.

It is, of course, by no means sure that this 'real meaning', if perceived, will be found acceptable in our old imperialist countries. For accepting it has then to mean accepting another but much more far-reaching proposition: that there was indeed a time when these Africans, before the European dispossessions, did know how to govern themselves, and, if our anthropological and other serious texts and analyses are anything to go by, knew this with an impressive stability and success. But at this point in the argument, no doubt, we have to plunge a little into the specifics of our own culture such as we have received it from our imperialist ancestors. Nothing is more certain than that this notion of pre-colonial political success in Africa, in 'tribal Africa', will be generally rejected in old imperialist countries with gravely head-nodding scorn, for everyone knows that pre-colonial Africans were no better than they should be: why otherwise should our forebears have embarked on the great colonial civilising mission? Now you may at once object that nobody any longer really thinks like that save on the wilder shores of political extremism. But from my experience the truth is rather that nobody any longer admits to thinking like that. The depths of inherent British paternalism in this connection are very deep, and those of most European cultures are probably deeper still. No such paternalism - read, no racism in the common usage of the term - in Sweden, Norway, or Denmark - or other such non-imperialist countries? Well, I wonder. For 'us', in any case, the outright imperialist decades weigh far more heavily than can be comfortable. Whenever any English person presents her/himself with enlightened views about the prospects for Africa I find myself bound to remember my old and kind instructor Dr Leopold Mottoulle in the Belgian Congo of half a century ago. As chief medical officer of the then great mining conglomerate, the Union Miniere, Mottoulle had performed a civilising marvel: he had banished the migrant labour system in those mines invented and imposed by their European entrepreneurs (Belgian, French, and other), and, at some expense to their profits, had ceased to allow the mines to borrow the British system of annual or bi-annual 'recruitment' of rural labourers. This was a savage system which laid waste to rural welfare and stability; and Mottoulle, who valued both those qualities, would have nothing to do with it.

Yes, but Mottoulle was still a convinced imperialist in our own familiar sense. He wrote what no-one nowadays is ready to admit even though the inner thought remains intact. As regards the whole great colonial enterprise (he wrote in 1946, and repeated to me in conversations of 1954),

the coloniser must never lose sight of the fact that the Negroes have the minds of children ... The European must in all circumstances show himself a calm an thoughtful chief, good without weakness, benevolent without familiarity, and above all just in the repression of faults as in the reward of goodwill.

Excruciating, no doubt: but surely recognisable in our own world of today, if in far more 'tactful' language? Perhaps I exaggerate. Yet most current personal attitudes, in Britain, do seem to reveal a very general disbelief in any African capacity to make progress in the management of African affairs. Africans may try, it is agreed, but they will not succeed. Or, if they do succeed, this will be only by following a European or North American precedent or lesson. Left to themselves, there is bound to be failure and confusion. (Or, of course, worse.) So far as the press is concerned, even our more thoughtful broadsheets can be seen to share this automatic attitude. Those who were broadly in touch with the realities of Congolese affairs (and with due reservations I include myself, who at least was one of those long awaiting Laurent Kabila's reappearance from the Kivu forests) were also those who saw that Kabila and his friends almost surely held the key to post-Mobutist reconstruction. If they could survive many years of virtual banishment from any public presence, and still retain the essence of the ideas and convictions which had carried them through the anti-Lumumbist persecutions and corruptions of the 1960s and after, then they would have something new and different to show to their country and to the world.

We shall see. Of course: perhaps! But while our journalists are (quite reasonably) digging up the evidence for Kabila-ist shortcomings during those long and lonely years of banishment and virtual isolation, the fact remains, today, that Kabila and his friends are well on the way to installing a peaceful scene in their troubled land, and may, on the internal evidence, quite possibly succeed: at any rate during the foreseeable future, and that will be no small thing. Yet our ingrained paternalism still prevails. Even as history-minded a newspaper as The Guardian feels it well and wise to take Kabila in hand. To come to any good, we read in a first leader of 19 May, 'Mr Kabila needs to show mature political judgement'. Reading this, one is induced to wonder how this man (and his friends in Congo) could possibly have got through the empty years if they had lacked that quality of judgement? To put in no higher, Kabila is after all the only 'Lumumbist' who managed to survive assassination or its equivalent in the decades of CIA-directed dictatorship. We read further that 'Kabila has much to learn and a track record which is shaky at some points and blank in others'. Perfectly probable: but, if so, shouldn't we be rather careful not to give advice out of our own ignorance? Admitting that leader-writers have to write leaders even when they have nothing useful to say (and I too have been a leader-writer, though for The Times and not, alas, The Guardian), this kind of automatic scepticism does seem to lead back to our customary paternalism; and the root of the matter, as it seems to me, rests in the stubborn power of cultural stereotypes. These have to be confronted; but they are deep embedded, and excavation is hard. Other peoples, of course, have the same difficulty: not least, Africans. In one of his memorable papers about the beliefs of the Kalahari, a people who live in the Niger Delta, Robin Horton tells an altogether convincing story about Kalahari reactions to their first sight of Europeans. Demonstrating a rooted condition of cultural paternalism, this story is all the more impressive because the Kalahari have otherwise shown themselves to be an ingenious and stubbornly experimental people. 'The first white man', we learn, 'was seen by a Kalahari fisherman who had gone down to the mouth of the (Niger) estuary in his canoe. Panic-stricken, he raced home and told his people what he had seen: whereupon he and the rest of the town set out to purify themselves - that is, to rid themselves of the influence of the strange and monstrous thing that had intruded on their world.' Nowadays, the Kalahari no longer see Europeans as strange and monstrous: or, rather, they no longer admit to this. We are all Europeans now. And now, in our own time, we may at any rate claim to be reaching and perhaps entering a post-imperialist epoch; but, if this is so, we have yet to reach and enter a post-imperialist culture.
That we are not there yet may be seen, for example, from reactions to this institutional crisis in the Congo. All the same, there is a novelty at work. It is that no powerful authority appears to expect 'the West', meaning in practice the USA and the European Union, to repeat their Bosnian (and other such experiments in 'knowing better') adventure, and send in troops and political administrators bearing solutions to crisis. We are evidently, at last, going to leave Africans to settle their own troubles and clear up their own confusions. After the spectacle of European interventions in Africa over the past century and more I am not at all sure, dear reader, that I can quite bring myself to believe this good news. But I am going to try, and, if I may say so, I strongly recommend you to do the same.